Alt-country charmer Rhett Miller will spend the next couple months playing the opening set for his own band, Old 97's. Miller will kick-start an Oct. 17 concert at Overture Center's Capitol Theater with tunes from his new solo album, The Dreamer. After that, Old 97's will play two sets, one of which will be devoted to playing Too Far to Care from start to finish. It's the 15th anniversary of that record's release. I caught up with Miller on the phone at his upstate New York home, where he had spent the morning creating bookmarks with his 6-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
What's the best time of day for you for composing music?
I used to be so precious about composing. Like middle of the night and I had to be alone. Like all these factors had to be perfect. At a certain point, I had to give that up, and I had to learn to write in a moving van full of dudes. The dining room table surrounded by children going crazy. So now I can pretty much write anywhere. So the last song I wrote, I wrote on a train from Long Island to JFK airport. I find myself writing in the car a lot now. As I'm driving I'll come up with ideas, and I'll use the Dictaphone app on my iPhone to record the ideas in there.
Do you listen for guitar changes in your head, or will a melody lead you to a mood and then an idea and then a lyric? How does that work?
It's usually the first lyric in the song. And it pops into my head, and I just chase it right down, you know. Like a snake through the grass, trying to grab it. It leads to the next lyric which suggests the melody. And then that melody suggests where it might go for the chorus. I kind of let the song provide its own momentum.
The Dreamer sounds like a back-to-the-basics group of songs. Is that how you approached it?
Funny, when I first visualized it, I thought it would be a really stripped-down acoustic album. The songs felt really natural and folky to me. And as it went, I wanted a little more backbone. I wanted the songs to be able to stand up a little bit. And I really wanted to work with my band the Serial Lady Killers. And we've never really been in the studio together. So I brought them in and had a set of really pretty gentle songs, and some of them got more muscular. Some of them got a little spacier and as all records do it evolved into something that I hadn't expected.
Why open for your own band?
I needed to go out with the band, but I needed to market ... my solo record. For the band to let me get up and do a little 25-minute advertisement for my solo career is pretty generous of them.
Are there any nights when you regret opening up for your own band? By the end of the night at the end of the whole shebang, when you're dead-tired?
I love to play. If I'm going to be away from my family and out on the road, I'd rather be working. Which is why I don't turn down in-stores and radio visits, and that's why I don't mind doing the solo sets. If I'm out there, I'm better off working. Otherwise, there's a good chance I'm sitting in a dark place in both senses of the phrase.
People are excited to hear Too Far to Care all the way through. Why do you think it's such a special record?
My take on it is experiential. The making of it. I loved making that record. It was just such a sweet moment for our band. We had been in the studio a couple of times and we'd learned a lot about it but we weren't jaded or bored. We had just spent four months being wooed by a dozen major record labels, and our heads were swollen, but not so much that we couldn't get a grip on what we were doing and who we were. It was a great time for us. It was a combination of naivite and confidence that I think informed that record. When I was writing all those songs -- except for "West Texas," which is [Old 97's bassist] Murry [Hammond's], there was something about it.
It was like this weekend here in upstate New York. When the leaves are changing, there's a moment, they say, that's the peak. I'm not sure if that was the peak of my songwriting or if that was the peak of our band, but something about that. That was the peak I felt of my youth. I was a 26-year-old man who had devoted his whole life to the pursuit of this dream of making a living out of making music. And all of the sudden, it was clear to me that I'd be able to do that. That even if I didn't have a huge hit, that I'd always be able to do this as my job. And I'd never have to go back to working for the plumber. I'd never have to go back to being a matre d' at an Italian restaurant. And that was such a glorious moment.
You write a lot about places. About small details within familiar spaces. Is that a device for you in your songwriting?
Yeah. A lot of people ask if where you live affects what you write, but you know, it's smaller than that. It's where you're sitting. For me, it's always that little moment. A song is best when it captures a moment. A real human moment.
When I sing songs onstage, I go back to a specific place. "Big Brown Eyes," I'm sitting in an old chair stolen from a diner at the back window of the upstairs in the garage apartment looking out over an alley in the middle of the night with a tall boy on the window ledge. I remember specifically those places. When I wrote "Salome," I remember going back in my mind to this air mattress in front of this girlfriend's apartment at the time, and I was waiting for her to return for our date and she was running late. And I fell asleep, and I woke up to the sound of laughter coming from inside her apartment, and she was only pretending to not be home. And she had a guy in there. And it was just this, such a funny moment. The moment before I heard her laughter, I was looking out at this beautiful starlit sky, and everything in the world was great. And then I heard the laughter, and everything changed, like how quickly this scene can change.
You know another really funny thing about that song, and I don't think I've ever mentioned this to anybody, but whatever. Who cares? It's an interior moment, I have this in a lot of songs, little jokes that are just for me, or even little observations that aren't even intended for the audience. But there's the line at the end of the chorus of that song, and every time I sing it, it means something a little bit different. But usually I'm looking out at the audience, and I'm singing "It's easier for you, it's easier for you," and sometimes, if I'm feeling sorry for myself, I'm missing my family and they get to go home. I'm looking at them going, "You get to go home tonight and sleep in a bed." I have to climb back into the bus with these dudes and spend another month on the road.
Then you can project new feelings in the moment of giving that song...
Oh yeah. I think songs are living and breathing, and they can be applied to a lot of different situations.
How do you choose a set list?
It has to do with alternating between all the different records. It depends on what's the key, what's the tempo, what's the feeling of the song. It's just a lot of variables. swear to God, I spend two hours every night before the show making the set list and agonizing over the set list and pestering my bandmates for their opinions about different segues between songs. I think a lot about it, and it would be a lot easier if we had just one set to do every night, like most bands. But I don't think it would be as fulfilling for either me or the audience.
What do you think about when people shout requests during your shows?
I do flash through the idea of like, "Dude, I spent two hours making this set list." But you know, I get it. I've shouted requests at shows, and I appreciate that there's a song they want to hear. The only bummer for me is that I'm easily guilted. So if somebody's shouted something that they want to hear, and it's one of those songs we just don't play, then I feel guilty, and then I'm sending my head there, and it kind of takes you out of the moment.
People lose and win in equal amounts in your love songs. When it comes to love are you, generally speaking, a glass-half-full guy or a glass-half-empty?
I don't know, man. I alternate. In real life I think I'm a very positive person. Just because in real life life is too short to dwell on the negative. I came from a broken home. I've been around a lot of people with serious depression, and I've had my own battles with that. But I feel that we're lucky to have this. And when it comes to love, it's not just possible but ... it's the thing. That's the meaning. When you're a young man and you're looking for the meaning and not finding it and wondering why the fuck you even stay on the planet, you know, eventually you find it. I did, anyway. And it's in my kids, and it's in my family, and it's great.
What's the worst, scariest place you've ever played?
You know we had a gig one time in Buffalo, New York. It was going to be a free show as part of a larger soft bill. We were sure it was going to be horrible because we'd never done well in upstate New York, outside of Manhattan. Ironically, that's where I've chosen to live. [Laughs.] So we were playing in Buffalo, and it turns out throngs appeared. And we had thousands of people in front of the stage and during the penultimate song, and you can find a video of this on YouTube if you put in "Old 97's Buffalo." A beautiful girl got up on stage and did this insane, sexy dance, and I could see security debating whether or not to pull her off, and I sort of shook them off. And they let her dance the whole song, and at the end of the song she pulled her friend up on stage, and they made out. These two girls making out like one foot away from me. So it went from being this show that I was convinced was going to be the worst show ever to, uh, one of the best shows. [Laughs.]
You did a 180 on me. I asked about the worst show, and you told me about one of the best.
Oh, sorry. That's where my mind went. There's been a lot of shitty bars over the years, but we seem to make the best of them. The only thing that pops into my head is before the Old 97's, Murry and I had a band called Sleepy Heroes, and we got talked into playing at this private party for this dude because he promised -- and this is when we were really young and single this dude promised that he was going to be throwing this party, and it was gonna be a bunch of topless dancers and us. And that's who we'd be playing for. So we showed up at this dude's loft and loaded in. And zero people showed up, and it turned out that was the day of the O.J. Simpson driving the Bronco down the highway. So we just sat with this creepy dude in this creepy loft and watched, you know, the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase. And there were no strippers.
Do you have any specific memories, good or bad, about your visits to Madison?
Oh my God. I got a lot of great memories of Madison. One of my favorite memories would be when we were Jon Langford's band at the Rathskeller. And we didn't even rehearse with him. We just showed up and he'd jusy yell out, "'Back on the Highway' in D!" And we'd just have to start playing it, and we're not that good. It was a little terrifying. Langford's a hero. We didn't want to let him down. And you know it's funny. I think about the places we've played in Madison that have burned down.
Who's the best American songwriter no one's heard of?
Oooohh. Oh man. Hmmm. I'm gonna go two categories. I'm gonna go young and old. I'm gonna say young, David Wax of the David Wax Museum. And I say old, but he's like my age, but I always thought Jon Brion never got his due. He's just such a great songwriter. He's done fine. He makes music for movies and makes more dough than anybody I know in our job, and he deserves every penny of it. He released an album called Meaningless and it disappeared.